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School board shouldn’t restrict media’s access

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Some years ago now, the newspaper I worked for thought it best to cover the West Johnston High School graduation because of a threat of violence there. The school system said that was fine so long as we left our cameras at home.

Naturally, I objected to that restriction, arguing that hundreds of parents and grandparents would be there with their camera-enabled cellphones, and I didn’t think the schools were willing or able, practically speaking, to confiscate all of those wireless devices at the gate.

The schools relented, and we attended the West High commencement, which passed without incident.

I recount this story because while I firmly believe the media have no more rights than any other member of the public, they don’t have fewer rights either. I hope the Johnston County Board of Education understands that.

Last week, the board considered but took no action on an “operating agreement” that, if adopted, would govern how board members conduct themselves with each other, with the public and at board meetings. Among other things, the agreement would make the school board chairman the sole point of contact for media inquiries.

I understand the motivation here. To use board Chairman Todd Sutton’s metaphor, in recent months, a divided Johnston school board has been pulling the plow of education in different directions. It’s time to present a united front, board members say, and one way to do that is to have one person speak for the board.

I can see too where that makes sense from the board’s perspective. If I want to know, for example, how the search for a new superintendent is going, a board that wants to speak with one voice would want one person to answer that question.

But even if all board members are pulling the plow in the same direction, they might see the superintendent search differently, at least to some degree. While the board chairman might be pleased with the quantity and quality of applicants, another board member might wish the applicant pool had more women or minorities. That’s a perspective I would want to know existed, and I think our readers would agree. But if I can speak only to the board chairman, how am I supposed to know?

And for the sake of argument, let’s assume the school board picks a new superintendent on a 6-1 vote. What then? Is a reporter supposed to call the chairman to ask him why another board member voted against the new hire? That seems a bit silly, not to mention cumbersome.

Beyond the logistics of reporting, if the chairman is the sole point of contact for media inquiries, is that also the case for other members of the public? Can parents and other taxpayers with questions speak only to the school board chairman?

Of course not, a point that school board member Tracie Zukowski made clear as she read highlights of the proposed operating agreement at last week’s school board meeting. “You are welcome to talk to any of us,” Zukowski said to the people in the audience. “That’s why you voted us in. That’s what we’re here for, to represent you.”

But if Ms. Zukowski represents the parent in the audience, the teacher in the audience, then surely she represents the reporter too. My point is that while the media shouldn’t enjoy special access to our elected leaders, neither should they enjoy less.

It’s true that the media often get what appears to be special treatment. Not just anyone, for example, can attend a White House press briefing. But that treatment is a recognition of the nature of the media’s work. Which is to say that a White House reporter couldn’t do his or her job — couldn’t earn a living — without access to the White House.

But every American has that First Amendment right that the media hold so dear. Any American can ask questions, gather information, report a story and publish it. In other words, member of the media are not a special class of citizen.

But neither are we second-class citizens, and I hope Johnston school board members don’t treat us a such.

Scott Bolejack is editor of the Johnstonian News. Email him at sbolejack@johnstoniannews.com.

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